Archive for July, 2014

“Damo” Lands NHL Gig

July 29, 2014

One of the beauties of the AHL is that it is a development ground not only for players but for off-ice talent as well, and the latest “prospect” to move on from the Wolf Pack to an NHL job is long-time athletic trainer Damien Hess.

Hess, who just completed his tenth season on the Wolf Pack staff, and reached the threshold of his 1000th pro game April 9, has been selected by the New York Islanders to become their new athletic trainer.

Wolf Pack athletic trainer Damien Hess (far left), being recognized for his 1000th pro game, with (l-r) son Alex, wife Storey, Kerby Gernander, Ken Gernander

Wolf Pack athletic trainer Damien Hess (far left), being recognized for his 1000th pro game, with (l-r) son Alex, wife Storey, Kerby Gernander, Ken Gernander

These kind of positions don’t come open very often, and it’s a just reward for Hess, who has more than paid his AHL dues.  He has a terrific rapport with players, management and medical staff alike, working extremely well with a variety of hugely different personalities.  His knowledge of his craft, and ability to communicate it clearly and reasonably, is outstanding, and his upbeat personality always seemed to improve the mood in the Wolf Pack locker room.

Hess joined the Wolf Pack from the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies of the ECHL prior to the 2004-05 season, and worked under three different head coaches, Ryan McGill, Jim Schoenfeld and, for the last seven years, Ken Gernander.  He had three seasons in Atlantic City under his belt when he came to Hartford, so all told he has honed his skills for 13 years in minor pro, meaning that, by my reckoning, he has more than enough seasoning to make the jump to the Big Show.

Hess will be jumping into his new job with both feet, as he will have franchise forward John Tavares coming back to action off of a major knee injury, suffered at the Sochi Olympics, that ended his 2013-14 season.  Tavares, the Isles’ captain, who will turn 24 on September 20, leads a strikingly young Islander roster, so it may not feel much different for Hess than ministering to the prospects that he has seen in the Wolf Pack training room throughout the last decade.  And he is certainly familiar with Islander head coach Jack Capuano, from going up against Capuano’s teams the three-plus seasons that he was behind the bench in Bridgeport.  Also, Hess will be in on the ground floor of a new era in Islanders history, as the team moves from Nassau Coliseum to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season.

An exciting opportunity for a good friend.  We’ll sure miss him here at the XL Center, but wish him and his family nothing but the best in this next chapter of their lives!

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Rangers Continue to Round out Roster

July 23, 2014

With the recent free-agent additions of Matthew Lombardi and Lee Stempniak, and the pre-arbitration re-signings of Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, the parent New York Rangers now have ten forwards signed who spent the bulk of last season in the NHL, and six defensemen.

The big club has two remaining restricted free agents, forward Derick Brassard and defenseman John Moore, and all indications are that both will be re-signed.  Brassard is arbitration-eligible–his hearing is scheduled for Monday–while Moore is not.  Assuming that both are re-upped, that would increase the totals to 11 forwards and seven defensemen.  The defense number includes Mike Kostka, whose first full NHL season was last year.

I would imagine that the Rangers would probably carry seven D, with the assumed top six being Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Dan BoyleMarc Staal, Kevin Klein and Moore.  That would set up the likes of Dylan McIlrath, Conor Allen, Matt Hunwick, Steven Kampfer, and whatever other dark horses might assert themselves, to battle for the seventh spot, or to try and unseat someone outside the top four for an NHL gig.

Conor Allen

Conor Allen

Up front, I have to think that J.T. Miller will be given every chance to land a spot in the Ranger lineup, especially given the fact that Brian Boyle is gone and there is a need for a big centerman.  With Miller’s skill and size, if he puts his mind to it, I think he could do for the Rangers what Mike Richards did for Los Angeles in the playoffs.  That is, be a third or fourth-line center who is skilled enough to warrant more than passing attention from opponents, while being enough of a force on the forecheck that he contributes significantly to the wearing-down of enemy defenses, simultaneously helping to keep the top two or three middlemen fresh.

I suspect that the parent club would love for another youngster or two, in addition to Miller, prove worthy of a full-time NHL job, given that the Rangers are likely to be significantly short on cap space once contracts are done for Brassard and Moore.  Jesper Fast seems to be on the cusp of being able to make the jump, and other prime candidates I would point to would be Oscar Lindberg and Ryan Haggerty.

J.T. Miller

J.T. Miller

The center position is a definite story line around the entire organizational roster, with Brad Richards also gone in addition to Boyle.  Lombardi is a centerman, so his arrival adds some depth there, but if I’m Lindberg, or Chris Mueller or Marek Hrivik for that matter, I’m looking at the Blueshirt roster and thinking that there is every reason to come to training camp with the mindset that there is a job there for the taking.  On the Wolf Pack side, the team’s second-half surge can in large part be credited to the addition of T.J. Hensick and the more consistent presence of Miller, two developments that strongly bolstered the club up the middle.  Now Hensick has signed with Hamilton and Miller is likely to spend even more time in the NHL, so I wonder if the organization might have an eye out for another depth centerman.  Mueller is certainly one, and he is coming off of a Calder Cup with Texas, and if all of the veteran “bubble” guys that the Rangers have signed end up with the Wolf Pack, the team will be out of veteran slots, but it still would not surprise me if we see a Hensick-type guy added before the end of the summer, if one turns out still to be out there.

New OT Protocol Tops AHL Changes

July 12, 2014

The AHL has been a big help to the NHL in recent years by acting as a sort of “testing laboratory” for rule changes that the Big Show is contemplating.

Concepts auditioned in the AHL in the past have included the four-on-four overtime and the shootout, and there is a very interesting tweak to the post-regulation setup on the way for this coming season.

At its annual meeting this past week, the AHL’s Board of Governors enacted a new procedure that will extend regular-season overtime to seven minutes, and provide for a “dry scrape” of the whole ice surface by the ice resurfacers prior to the beginning of OT.  Even more significantly, while the first three minutes of the extra session will be played four-on-four, if more play is necessary beyond the three-minute mark, the teams will go to three-on-three at the next stoppage.Action Shot for Blog - 07-12-14

If the tie holds up through the entire seven minutes of extra play, then the game goes to a three-player, best-of-three shootout.

Obviously, this is in the interest of trying to decide more games without having to use the shootout, which has always been distasteful to most hockey purists, and to many of those in charge of running the game.

The idea of a three-on-three overtime is not new–Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland was pushing it two years ago–but this will be the first time it will have been tried in a pro league.

While I enjoy the shootout, I am excited to see how this new idea works.  I think it definitely will reduce the incidence of shootouts, as it will be much harder for teams to have the mindset of just surviving OT and taking their chances in the shootout.  While coaches seem to have figured out how to take away time and space fairly successfully in the four-on-four setup, there is so much open ice in three-on-three, you would think that would be nearly impossible.  Also, knowing that there is that much more clock time to get through in overtime, I think, will help keep teams from going into that “survival” mode in the four-on-four, and motivate them to attack more.

Another intriguing element to this experiment is the question of how the process of dry-scraping the ice before overtime will affect the momentum of the game.  Those that know tell me that a dry scrape of the full surface will take six to seven minutes, as opposed to the two or three minutes that was required for the dry scrape of the middle of the ice before the shootout.  Those 6-7 minutes represent a fairly extended break, especially compared to what we are used to leading into overtime, certainly long enough for any real momentum generated by either team towards the end of regulation to dissipate.  On the other hand, though, it would also seem to be a long enough time for the teams to get a rejuvenating breather, such that they may come out with renewed and entertaining energy for the extra session.  Either way, I think the benefit of having a smoother sheet of ice to start the OT, which should enhance the pace, is well worth waiting through the dry scrape.

Action Shot for Blog - 07-12-14 - McIlrathIn addition to this major change, the league also decided on two smaller ones.  One is the dictum that a player will receive a game misconduct for incurring two fighting majors, or a total of three majors of any type, in the same game.  It used to be that it was three across the board, but this is another step towards further limiting of the fisticuffs.  Also, there will be no more bareheaded players skating around, under any circumstances.  A new rule states that a player who loses his helmet on the ice must either pick it up immediately and put it back on his head, with the chin strap secured, or skate directly to the bench, with those who fail to do either of those receiving a minor penalty.

Those were the on-ice changes, and the franchise movement coming out of this past season also brought on a divisional realignment.

The Wolf Pack’s divisional address will stay the same, as they remain in the Northeast Division, but that division became less geographically compact.  The Adirondack Phantoms, whom the Pack battled ten times in 2013-14, have moved from Glens Falls to Allentown, PA, and that franchise, now called the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, has been moved to the East Division.  Replacing the Phantoms in the Northeast are the Syracuse Crunch, who played the last five years in the East Division.  It will be interesting to see how many times the Wolf Pack play the Crunch, as Syracuse, at 254 miles from Hartford, is 83 miles further than Glens Falls.  Glens Falls is less than a three-hour ride from the XL Center, and the Wolf Pack did that as a day trip several times, but Syracuse, at about four hours, is too long to do the day of a game.

Happily for the good fans of Glens Falls, who are near and dear to my heart, the Abbotsford Heat moved in to replace the departed Phantoms.  That relocated Heat franchise, re-christened the Adirondack Flames, will have to remain in the Western Conference, lest there be an imbalance in the number of teams in the two conferences.  In the Western Conference, the Lake Erie Monsters will be moving into the Midwest Division from the North and the Iowa Wild, in their second year of play in Des Moines, will be in the Midwest Division instead of the West.

Another perennial summer story line is coaching changes, and there have already been several in the AHL.

Brent Thompson

Brent Thompson

In the Wolf Pack’s division, defending divisional champ Springfield will have Jared Bednar calling the shots next year, after Brad Larsen was promoted to an assistant’s position with parent-club Columbus.  Bednar was one of Larsen’s assistants the last two seasons.  And in Bridgeport, former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson is returning for his second stint as the Sound Tigers’ head man.  Thompson, who had served as an assistant for the parent New York Islanders for the past two years, after one year in the Bridgeport head job in 2011-12, replaces the fired Scott Pellerin.

The Calder Cup-winning head coach, the Texas Stars’ Willie Desjardins, has parlayed the Stars’ championship into an NHL head job with the Vancouver Canucks.  He will be replaced in Cedar Park by Derek Laxdal, who was hired away from the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings.  And Manchester Monarchs bench boss Mark Morris, the second longest-serving head man in the league behind Worcester’s Roy Sommer, was not brought back, despite leading the Monarchs to an Eastern Conference regular-season championship.  His replacement behind the Monarch bench will be former Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Mike Stothers, who spent the last three years battling Laxdal in the WHL, as coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors.

Two new coaches have been hired in the East Division, with Troy Mann replacing Mike Haviland in Hershey and Jarrod Skalde taking over for Trent Yawney down in Norfolk.  Haviland left the Bears after one season to become head coach of Colorado College, while Mann, an ex-Hershey assistant, returns to Chocolatetown after one year piloting the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL.  Yawney was elevated from Norfolk to become an assistant with the parent club in Anaheim, and Skalde, who has head-coaching experience in the IHL and ECHL, gets his first AHL head gig after one season as Yawney’s assistant.

Along with a new location for their AHL affiliate, the Flames also have a new AHL coach, as they elected not to keep Troy Ward, their head man in Abbotsford the last three years.  He has been supplanted by Ryan Huska, another WHL product.  Huska has been the top man of the Kelowna Rockets for the past seven seasons.

And the latest AHL team to be in the market for a new leader is the Toronto Marlies, as the parent Maple Leafs announced just yesterday that Steve Spott, who led the Marlies to a North Division championship and to within one win of the Calder Cup Finals this year, will be rewarded with an assistant’s spot on the Leafs’ staff for 2014-15.

 

Ranger Signings Bolster Depth

July 7, 2014

The parent New York Rangers rarely fail to cook an extremely hot stove when the flag goes up on free agency, and this year’s kickoff of the signing season was no exception.

And in addition to adding a major veteran NHL cog in defenseman Dan Boyle, the Blueshirts made a huge commitment to organizational depth.  The exclamation mark on that was the announcement Wednesday that Chris Bourque has signed on with the Rangers.

Chris Bourque, of course, is the older brother of Ryan Bourque, a Wolf Pack fixture for the past three seasons, and the elder Bourque has fashioned himself quite an AHL resume.  He was a major cog in the Hershey Bears’ mini-dynasty late in the last decade, which saw the boys from Chocolatetown win three Calder Cups, in 2006, 2009 and 2010, in a span of five years and get to the Finals in a fourth of those five years, 2007.  Bourque was AHL Playoff MVP in 2010 and won the league scoring title in 2011-12, racking up 27-66-93 in 73 games.

Bourque has been nearly a point-a-game player over 437 AHL games in his career, posting 433 points (142 goals and 291 assists), and I know he has always been a favorite of the Wolf Pack coaching staff, who has admired Bourque’s tenacity and effort, which often even overshadow his considerable skills.  That is a trait that his younger brother shares, and I have to believe that the potential for playing with Ryan, whether that be in New York or in Hartford, was a major factor in Chris Bourque’s decision to sign with the Rangers.  Ryan’s entry-level deal with the Rangers is up, making him a restricted free agent, but I would assume that he will re-sign, especially now with his big brother in the fold.

Chris Bourque’s last AHL tour was two seasons ago, when he split the season between Boston and Providence, tallying 10-28-38 in 39 games with the P-Bruins.  He began this past season in Russia’s KHL, with Ak Bars Kazan, but then left November 29 to join Biel of the Swiss National League A.  He had two goals in 11 games with Ak Bars Kazan and 6-7-13 in 21 contests with Biel, where he skated alongside former Wolf Pack defenseman Brendan Bell.

With the addition of Nick Tarnasky, signed away from the Canadiens organization, Thursday, the Rangers have added nine new bodies via free agency, and six of those nine spent much, if not all, of their most recent North American pro seasons in the AHL, and thus could reasonably be considered “depth” signings, guys that very well could end up with the Wolf Pack.  Those would be Bourque, Tarnasky, goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, defensemen Matt Hunwick and Steven Kampfer and forward Chris Mueller.  Another, defenseman Mike Kostka, logged only two AHL games last year, but prior to that had been mostly an AHL guy throughout the balance of his career.

The signing of Desjardins is significant, in that it gives the organization a veteran goaltender/number three NHL guy/”insurance policy”, the likes of which it has not started the season with since Steve Valiquette partnered with Al Montoya in Montoya’s rookie year of 2005-06.  The Rangers found themselves in a pickle last year when Cam Talbot grabbed the backup job in New York less than a month into the season, and none of Jason Missiaen, Jeff Malcolm or Scott Stajcer was able to step up and grab the reins in Hartford.  Jim Schoenfeld & Co. were able to do some smart shopping, thankfully, and come up with both Dov Grumet-Morris and David LeNeveu as veterans to fill the void, but it seems now that they want to ensure themselves of not being put in that position again.

Cedrick Desjardins (blog.syracuse.com)

Cedrick Desjardins (blog.syracuse.com)

Desjardins, an eight-year veteran, has tasted of six NHL games in his career and helped lead the Syracuse Crunch to the Calder Cup Finals in 2013.  He also won an ECHL championship in 2008, his second pro year, with the Cincinnati Cyclones and was a Memorial Cup champ with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts (coached by another pretty fair goaltender in Patrick Roy) in 2006.  Desjardins will likely be partnered in Hartford with a youngster, presumably 2013 sixth-round pick MacKenzie Skapski, allowing him to be brought along at his own pace while Desjardins provides injury insurance for the big club.  Solid move all around.

Mueller, a 28-year-old veteran of six pro seasons, is fresh off a Calder Cup championship with the Texas Stars, for whom he scored 25 goals in 60 games.  His championship pedigree also includes an NCAA title in 2007 with Michigan State, a team captained by current XL Center general manager Chris Lawrence.

Hunwick and Kampfer are both well known to Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander and his staff, as both blueliners broke in with the Providence Bruins before moving on different locales.  Hunwick and Kampfer are definitely legit NHL depth players—Hunwick has logged nearly 300 NHL games in his six pro years—and top-pair candidates in the AHL.  And there is already a void on the Wolf Pack defense, as 2013-14 captain Aaron Johnson has signed with Ottawa.

Chris Mueller (texasstarshockey.com)

Chris Mueller (texasstarshockey.com)

While Bourque and Mueller bring some heavy-duty offensive numbers to the table, Tarnasky is more of a grit guy, but I remember him from his first two pro seasons in Springfield as having an impressive set of wheels.  And, to his credit, his last two AHL years, two seasons ago with Rochester (16 goals, 26 points) and this past year with Hamilton (13 goals, 22 points), have been just about his two best offensively.  He also has 245 career games-played under his belt.

Bourque, Mueller, Hunwick, Tarnasky and Kostka are all veterans with more than 320 NHL/NHL/European Elite career games-played, so if all five of those guys end up with the Wolf Pack, that would fill all of the team’s 320-plus veteran slots.  It would still, though, leave open the team’s one spot for a veteran of less than 320 games-played.

Favorite Free Agents

July 1, 2014

So the draft is complete and the free-agency period has officially begun, and with help from capgeek.com, here is a list of free agents who have caught my eye over the years, playing either for the Wolf Pack or other AHL teams.  A caveat…this is just one man’s uneducated, knee-jerk opinion, nothing the least bit more significant than that.

I have included a number players who were on AHL contracts this year, assuming that their deals have expired.  That may not necessarily be the case for all, or any, of them, but I do not know of any capgeek-style resource that has that type of information for AHL-contracted players.

Forwards:

Alex Aleardi (AHL contract, Springfield)

Sean Backman (AHL contract, Manchester)

Mike Blunden (Montreal)

Pierre-Marc Bouchard (Chicago)

Jon DiSalvatore (AHL contract, Syracuse)

Andrew Gordon (#10, blue), in action against the Wolf Pack for the St. John's IceCaps.

Andrew Gordon (#10, blue), in action against the Wolf Pack for the St. John’s IceCaps (courtesy of st.johnsicecaps.com).

Nick Drazenovic (Pittsburgh)

Andrew Gordon (Winnipeg)

Ben Holmstrom (Philadelphia)

Jason Jaffray (AHL contract, St. John’s)

Pierre-Cedric Labrie (Tampa Bay)

Mark Mancari (Florida)

Andy Miele (Phoenix)

Kael Mouillierat (AHL contract, St. John’s)

Cal O’Reilly (AHL contract, Utica)

Ryan Potulny (AHL contract, Hershey)

Jerome Samson (Winnipeg)

Brandon Segal (Washington)

Jamie Tardif (Buffalo)

Derek Whitmore (AHL contract, Adirondack)

Kelly Zajac (AHL contract, Albany)

 

Defensemen:

T.J. Brennan (Toronto)

Andrew Campbell (Los Angeles)

Garnet Exelby (AHL contract, Norfolk)

Dan Kelly (AHL contract, Albany)

Mike Kostka (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mike Kostka (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mike Kostka (Tampa Bay)

Derek Meech (AHL contract, Texas)

Brendan Mikkelson (Pittsburgh)

Mike Moore (Boston)

Jared Nightingale (AHL contract, Rockford)

Joe Piskula (Nashville)

Corey Potter (Boston)

 

Goaltenders:

Cedrick Desjardins (Tampa Bay)

Jason LaBarbera (Chicago)

David Leggio (Washington)

Drew MacIntyre (Toronto)